Stumbling Toward Enlightenment

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Indentured Labor Hidden in America’s Richest Homes


by Piper Hoffman

A modern day form of slavery is imprisoning poor people for their labor, and it’s happening in some of the swankiest kitchens in our country. Live-in domestic workers cook, clean and care for children. Some of them work from dawn ’til dusk, or longer. Many don’t get sick days, vacation time, or holidays. Some are paid a pittance, far less than the minimum wage. Some of them aren’t allowed out of the house.

Nearly all of it is legal. “The Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees minimum wage, overtime and sick and vacation pay, does not apply to domestic workers,” CNN reports.

A new study about the lives of domestic workers documents the exploitative conditions many of them work in. The University of Chicago teamed up with non-profit groups to identify and interview subjects for “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.” Among the study’s findings about domestic workers:

  • 67% of live-in workers are paid below the state minimum wage.
  • 48% receive an hourly wage that is too low to adequately support a family.
  • 96% are not covered by employer-provided insurance.
  • More than 91% of workers’ employers do not pay into Social Security for them.
  • 20% experienced “times in the previous month when there was no food to eat in their [own] homes because there was no money to buy any.”
  • 82% had no paid sick days.

CNN described the conditions for one worker documented in the study:

Anna worked seven days a week as a nanny for the family of a Fortune 500 company executive. She lived with them in their 5th Avenue apartment in Midtown Manhattan. Her day began at 6 when the children woke up and didn’t end until 10 at night when she put them to bed and cleaned the kitchen. She cooked meals, did laundry and tended to the children’s needs. She slept on the floor in between their beds. She did not have a single day off in 15 months.

Anna earned $1.27 an hour.

Domestic labor is considered women’s work, and is devalued accordingly. Two other factors depress these workers’ wages: one is that they are disproportionately minorities, and the other is that many of them are undocumented immigrants.

The exploitation and injustice domestic workers face are just the kind of wrongs that laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act were meant to end. But the FLSA does not apply to people who work in others’ homes. Based on the University of Chicago study, The New York Times called for this to change. Domestic workers’ “experiences argue for strong policy reforms, starting with including domestic labor in the list of occupations that enjoy core federal and state workplace protections. These women deserve fair treatment. Achieving basic rights shouldn’t have to depend, haphazardly, on the kindness of their employers.”

Efforts to protect these workers’ basic human rights under the law have often failed. California’s governor vetoed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in October. On the other hand, in 2010 New York enacted a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that applied “all of the major labor laws protecting other workers” to the vulnerable individuals working in people’s homes, including ”overtime pay at time and a half [the] regular rate of pay, a minimum of one day of rest per week, protection from discrimination and harassment and inclusion of part-time workers in disability laws.”

Domestic workers are, for those who can afford to hire them, a replacement for the old-fashioned ideal wife. She cooks, cleans, raises the children, and accepts whatever pin money her husband chooses to bestow. Her life revolves around his needs while hers are neglected — or, as Betty Friedan argued, sublimated, redirected, or otherwise turned monstrous. Treating women like machines just doesn’t work, puerile science fiction stories to the contrary notwithstanding.

The plight of suburban housewives has had many champions for many years and giant strides have been made. Now it is the domestic workers’ turn.

The University of Chicago study makes many recommendations. Here are just a few of them:

  • rights to the minimum wage, overtime pay, breaks, and rest days
  • health coverage for full-time employees
  • rights to employer contributions to Social Security, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation
  • protection from discrimination and harassment

In other words, the law should extend to domestic workers the same rights it grants to other employees. Equality — isn’t that what housewives wanted too?

Author: barenose

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